July 7, 2009
NEA, Obama Administration May Not Be in Sync
By Stephen Sawchuk
...The day before official business began at the Representative Assembly, nearly 7,000 of the union’s delegates packed into the city’s convention center to listen to Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education.
Beginning a few hours later—after Mr. Duncan had departed for Washington—and throughout the holiday weekend, union delegates proposed and debated resolution after policy resolution on elements of the Obama administration’s emerging education policy agenda.
In other words, this year’s convention, which ended yesterday, was marked by the NEA’s first major attempts at getting a handle on what the administration’s push into sensitive policy areas will mean for the union’s 3.2-million members. Issues on the table for the union, which represents mostly teachers and education-support personnel, include the expansion of charter schools, the “turning around” of low-performing schools, and now with Mr. Duncan’s latest address, structural changes to the way teachers are compensated and evaluated.
In his July 2 speech, the fourth he has given on the “assurances” states must meet in exchange for receiving funding through the economic-stimulus measure, the secretary called on teachers’ unions “to become full partners and leaders in education reform” and to be willing to collaborate with districts to create fair ways of incorporating student-achievement growth into evaluation and pay systems.
“Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation, or tenure decisions. That would never make sense,” Mr. Duncan said. “But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible.”
In addition, he said that teachers’ unions must be willing to reconsider seniority provisions and rework tenure processes, two hard-won rights that unions have long defended.
“When inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules that we designed put adults ahead of children, then we are not only putting kids at risk, we’re putting the entire education system at risk. We’re inviting the attack of parents and the public, and that is not good for any of us,” Mr. Duncan said. “I believe that teacher unions are at a crossroads. These policies were created over the past century to protect the rights of teachers, but they have produced an industrial, factory model of education that treats all teachers like interchangeable widgets.”
Delegates applauded Secretary Duncan’s calls for continued federal funding for education, better training for administrators, and improved teacher-mentoring experiences. But they booed and hissed when he mentioned tying pay and evaluation to test scores.
Echoing President Barack Obama’s November education speech, Mr. Duncan sought to reassure teachers that he would seek reforms to the teaching profession in collaboration with them. But he also appeared to acknowledge teachers’ hesitancy to engage on some of those issues, especially given the union’s poor relations with the Bush administration.
“You can boo; [but] just don’t throw any shoes, please,” he quipped partway through his speech, to laughter and applause.
During a town hall-style meeting with Mr. Duncan following his remarks, delegates raised concerns about the use of test scores.
“In too many cases, our state boards of education, our local boards of education are not getting that message” that pay programs should be based on multiple measures of teacher performance beyond test scores, one delegate said.
Others were more frank about their dislike for performance-based pay. “Quite frankly, merit pay is union-busting,” said another delegate, to applause from her peers...